Election 2024: Khan vs. Sharif Showdown

In the tumultuous aftermath of a no-confidence vote in April 2022, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has encountered a series of setbacks. From surviving a shooting incident to facing an onslaught of over 180 charges, including rioting and terrorism, his political journey has taken a grim turn. Subsequently, Khan found himself confined to a cramped nine-by-11-foot cell after an August 5 conviction on corruption charges related to the alleged sale of state gifts.

Despite maintaining widespread public support, the 71-year-old’s chances of staging a comeback appear exceedingly slim as Pakistan approaches fresh elections scheduled for February 8. The country’s military power players seem determined to employ various strategies to sideline Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Recent months have witnessed the arrest of thousands of PTI workers, the resignation of dozens of party leaders following prolonged interrogations, the banishment of Khan’s name from mainstream media, and the controversial redrawing of constituency boundaries, purportedly to favor his political rivals. Furthermore, Khan’s own nomination papers have been rejected, adding another layer of complexity to his political predicament.

Expressing skepticism about the democratic process, Samina Yasmeen, the director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, notes concerns as Pakistan heads into the elections. The intricate web of challenges faced by Khan underscores doubts about the adherence to genuine democratic principles.

Adding to the narrative, it is emphasized that Khan, the former cricketer-turned-politician, is now even deprived of his iconic cricket bat. This detail serves as a poignant symbol of the broader struggles and uncertainties surrounding his political fate.

On the recent developments in Pakistani politics, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party faces a significant setback as its iconic cricket bat logo is banned from appearing on ballot papers. This decision, announced on Monday, poses a considerable challenge for the party, particularly in a country where up to 40% of the electorate is illiterate. The prohibition effectively renders the PTI as a party, compelling its candidates to run as independents using various symbols, ranging from a rollercoaster to a goat.

The removal of the cricket bat logo, deemed an integral component of fair elections by Raoof Hasan, PTI’s principal spokesman and a former special assistant to Khan, is seen as rendering the party toothless. This move complicates matters as Pakistani lawmakers are constitutionally obligated to vote along party lines on key issues, including the selection of the leader of the house and financial legislation. With PTI-backed candidates officially designated as independents, they are not bound by such constraints, making it easier for the opposition to form coalitions by targeting individual candidates with inducements.

Moreover, the PTI will be ineligible to receive its rightful share of the parliamentary “reserved seats” for women and minorities, determined based on a party’s overall vote proportion. Instead, these seats would be allocated to other registered parties.

Attempting to register as independents has proven challenging for PTI candidates. Nomination papers frequently end up in the hands of shadowy security personnel, prompting the PTI to dispatch multiple candidates with papers to increase the chances of successful submissions. Even when papers are submitted, candidates require a proposer and seconder to attend the nomination in person. Instances of “kidnapping” of these supporters have reportedly led to the rejection of around 90% of PTI candidates’ nomination papers, raising concerns about significant pre-poll rigging.

These obstacles faced by Imran Khan and the PTI contrast starkly with the experiences of Nawaz Sharif, a three-time former Prime Minister, who returned to Pakistan after having been ousted for corruption in 2017 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Sharif’s recent return to the country marked the overturning of his corruption conviction and a lifetime ban from politics. On Monday, at the age of 74, Sharif launched his campaign for a potential fourth term as Prime Minister, creating a sense of frustration among disenfranchised PTI supporters.

As the upcoming weeks promise a surge in political activity with candidates gearing up for rallies, Imran Khan’s sister, Aleema, foresees heightened tensions and growing anger in the streets. The political landscape in Pakistan is undeniably charged, and the military’s unequivocal support for Nawaz Sharif positions him as a formidable contender for a return to power. Despite facing numerous challenges, Imran Khan’s enduring popularity necessitates more assertive strategies for his opponents.

In a revealing Gallup opinion poll from December, despite the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) turbulent governance record and Khan’s incarceration, the former Prime Minister’s approval ratings stand at an impressive 57%, compared to 52% for Sharif. PTI remains confident in its ability to secure victory if given a fair opportunity to compete.

“People, especially at the grassroots level, are very pro-Imran Khan,” asserts Yasmeen, emphasizing the charismatic hold Khan maintains on a significant portion of the population. Such is his influence that, as Yasmeen playfully suggests, even if Khan were to endorse a piece of furniture, it would likely secure electoral success.

However, the question looms large: why has the international community, particularly the United States under the Joe Biden administration, been relatively subdued in response to these glaring irregularities? Despite pledging to prioritize democracy promotion in its foreign policy agenda, the U.S. has displayed a measured response. The stakes are undeniably high, considering Pakistan’s nuclear status and the overwhelming burden of $140 billion in external debt. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens grapple with the repercussions of Asia’s highest inflation, experiencing a staggering 38.5% year-on-year rise in food prices.

The complex dynamics unfolding in Pakistan demand a closer look at the intersection of political maneuvering, public sentiment, and international implications. As the nation hurtles towards a crucial electoral juncture, the evolving narrative encapsulates both the resilience of Imran Khan’s political standing and the broader challenges confronting a nation at a critical crossroads.

mran Khan’s geopolitical choices have left him with few allies in the West, particularly due to his emphasis on fostering relations with Russia and China. Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., succinctly captures the sentiment from a U.S. perspective, asserting that, “From a Washington perspective, anyone would be better than Khan.”

In stark contrast, Nawaz Sharif is viewed as business-friendly and pro-America. With the United States recalibrating its foreign policy focus post the Afghanistan withdrawal, Sharif emerges as a potential ally at a crucial juncture. The recent Iranian airstrike on alleged Sunni militants within Pakistani territory, resulting in the tragic death of at least two children, underscores the need for a trusted partner in Islamabad, highlighting the delicate nature of the region’s geopolitical dynamics.

While American interests in Pakistan revolve around counterterrorism efforts and stabilizing relations with India, Sharif is perceived to have a more favorable track record in addressing these priorities. However, the complexity of Pakistani politics becomes evident when considering the military’s influence. Despite the military seemingly supporting Sharif at present, historical tensions and past ousters, including a coup d’état, cast a shadow over civil-military relations.

The tumultuous history of Pakistani leadership further complicates the landscape, with no Prime Minister having completed a full term. If Sharif were to reclaim power, skepticism lingers about the durability of his tenure, given his track record of being ousted three times before. Yet, Imran Khan’s resilience is palpable even amid his imprisonment. Despite the challenges, Khan maintains a stoic demeanor, finding solace in the intellectual refuge of books, reportedly reading two to three each day.

As the upcoming February election appears challenging for the PTI, there is an unwavering commitment to the democratic process. Raoof Hasan emphatically states, “We shall be in the election. We’re not going to back off, we’re not going to walk away, we’re not going to forfeit even a single seat throughout the country.” The tenacity and determination underscore the ongoing struggle in Pakistan’s political arena, where setbacks may be a reality, but conceding defeat is not an option.

Leave a Comment